“We’re here to save your Christmas”: District Theatre co-artistic director Marie Hamilton discusses team-building whodunnit Murder on the 28th Floor
The office Christmas party is cancelled, after-work drinks are a distant memory and many of us haven’t seen our colleagues in the flesh since March. There’s no denying that 2020 has been a strange, sad and unprecedented year – and we could all do with a good laugh to brighten up these dark days! Enter Murder on the 28th Floor, a virtual whodunnit theatre production which takes place over Zoom.
There’s been a murder in your office, and these eccentric detectives are here to help you solve the crime! The performers will enter your neglected office building and stream the show, while you and your colleagues join the fun from the safety of your sofa.
Running from November 2020 to January 2021, the show offers an alternative, socially distanced Christmas party to re-ignite that social environment many of us have been missing for the last eight months. We spoke to Marie Hamilton, co-artistic director of District Theatre, to find out more.
How did the idea for Murder on the 28th Floor come about?
All around the country there are office buildings standing empty while teams work remotely – loads of people haven’t seen their colleagues for seven months and are in desperate need of a good laugh, and something to bond over that isn’t work. So, we came up with this! Theatre, that we perform live from abandoned offices while the team watch on Zoom.
It’s a really silly whodunnit 1980s detective show with montage music, Hawaiian shirts, fake moustaches and a few filing cabinet hide-outs thrown in for good measure. The audience can be as involved as they like, assisting in the investigation, interrogating suspects and drawing E-fit pictures. We can make it really personalised for the team too – in-jokes, references, anything they want to make it as special and exciting for them as possible.
Would the socially distanced, immersive Zoom nature of Murder on the 28th Floor have worked, or even been a thing, before the pandemic?
I don’t think we would have ever thought of making a show on Zoom, let alone a big Christmas murder mystery! When the pandemic hit, like everyone in theatre, music, film, television and any industry that relies on people being together in a room, we lost all our work overnight.
But necessity is a powerful force for the creation of new ways of doing things and now there’s an entirely new artform to work with! We’ve both done lots of theatre and film, but this is essentially film that we perform live while we simultaneously edit, do the lighting and costume changes. It’s wild and was initially absolutely terrifying but now we have it down to a fine art and it’s an absolute hoot.
How has social distancing impacted on rehearsals and creative collaboration between those involved in the show?
When lockdown was at its height we were writing over Zoom and then we created a bubble and rehearsed with all the necessary precautions and social distancing. The great thing is the company is just Christian Loveless, my co-artistic director, and I, so we can keep it very contained.
And the show itself couldn’t be more Covid-safe: the audience can be tucked away in their own houses, on their own sofas, drinking a glass of wine. We’re let into their offices in the daytime, set everything up, do the show and then clean everything up very carefully behind ourselves, and it was as we were never there. We are following the guidelines very strictly as they develop, and work closely with the company to make sure we comply with everything they have in place themselves.
What do you hope Murder on the 28th Floor will achieve?
To give everyone a much-needed laugh! This year has been pretty miserable, and everyone has had to really roll with the punches and get used to working in ways that no one would have believed possible, even the week before it all happened. People really need cheering up, and especially people who have had to work full office hours from their kitchen table for the past 7 months. First theatre got the chop, then weddings, festivals, family holidays, now the office Christmas party, we can’t have that. Enough is enough.
Do you think comedy has become more important in 2020? And if yes, why?
Comedy is so important for processing difficult things, and when times are dark it’s really important to know that other people are going through the same thing as you and that there’s a common thing to laugh about. You can see the ridiculousness of it together and it becomes a bit easier to deal with!
What do you do if your audience is shy and isn’t engaging enough with the show?
Not everyone likes having the spotlight shone on them, especially not in front of their co-workers, and we completely understand and respect that. If people wish to keep their cameras off and just sit back and relax that is totally encouraged; there’s loads going on and it would be just as much fun to watch as an outside observer. But anyone who wishes to get more directly involved can become integral to the show, your boss in a fake moustache humming the Magnum PI theme tune, lovely Linda from accounts intensely grilling a suspect. There are a lot of laughs.
The pandemic has definitely taken its toll on theatre. How do you think performing arts will come out of it, eventually?
Artists are incredibly resilient, brave and inventive by nature; it takes a certain type of dogged-ness and determination to choose this path but it’s been really hard and I’m not certain it’s going to get much better very soon. The arts have been a lifeline for everyone during the past months.
You don’t get award-winning Netflix shows without strong youth theatre provision and companies being able to tour outside of the major cities and so it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth to be encouraged to re-train. But very luckily there will always be people hardy and/or daft enough to ignore the advice of their parents, teachers, friends and now… the government… and keep going. So we’ll make it through alright, eventually!
Do you think interactive, video-based theatre will continue after the pandemic? Are there any advantages to this type of theatre?
There’s no substitute for seeing something live, in the same room as you, but it has been amazing to find these totally new ways of working. We would never have given Zoom a second glance before all this, but it has been a great and exciting learning curve to work within its confines and discover its creative potential. We use the chat box, screen sharing, and just switching the camera on or off can give us a scene change in a second. I think it’s definitely something that will continue and be played with and developed in the future, so it’s exciting to be jumping in at the deep end and being here for the start of a totally new medium. What’s brilliant as well is the democratisation of it, and the way that someone can watch our show as easily from Taiwan as they could from Tottenham.
Are any two Murder on the 28th Floor performances the same, or are they changed for specific companies?
No two shows are the same! We have a structure and script that is set but within that there is loads of scope for personalisation and improvisation based on audience interaction. It kind of blows people’s mind to see their offices again and just the physical reality of the setting makes the show totally different and special every time – we’ve done shows to celebrate ten-year anniversaries, worked on team mascots, all sorts!
What’s next for both of you?
To get the word out to as many people as possible about this! We’ve done loads of theatre, but the corporate world is new territory for us. There are so many people stuck working from home, so many teams in need of a morale booster and a proper laugh, and something to bond over that’s not work and we just need to get the word out to them. We’re here to save your Christmas.
For further information about Murder on the 28th Floor visit the website here.